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BW Businessworld

PI Talkies: What’s Your Leadership Legacy?

Imagine. The year is 2035. After a long and successful career, you’ve recently hung up your boots. What’s your le a der sh ip legacy going to be?

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Imagine. The year is 2035. After a long and successful career, you’ve recently hung up your boots. What’s your le a der sh ip legacy going to be? What will people be saying about you? What stories would they be telling other people about you? A former boss of mine used to talk about an interesting question that kept recurring in his head even as he considered his own leadership style. “I often wonder,” he would say, “When I am 70 years old, who will want to have coffee with me?”

Back to the present then. What is your legacy going to be? Have you ever thought about it? When your awesome-sounding title gets prefixed with ‘ex’ — who amongst your colleagues and associates will want to have coffee with you?

The problem for most leaders is they are so pre-occupied with delivering the quarter’s numbers, there’s little time to think about stuff like long-term impact — let alone airy-fairy ideas like leaving a legacy. Unfortunately, as we have all come to realise, those target-busting, record-setting performances are usually forgotten by the time the year ends. Great leaders are remembered for the legacies they leave behind. So how can you create your own legacy? Here are four pointers — four conscious choices every leader can make — to help you build a lasting legacy by the time 2035 is here.

Strive for significance, not just success. We are all driven by a need for achievement. We strive for success. It sure is nice to get a fancy title, a large car and a fat bank balance. But it’s unlikely that any of those is what you will be remembered for. Focus instead on significance. On making a difference. Impact the people you work with. Help them get better. Show them you care. Make them feel valued. Make your world a better place too. You weren’t just meant to do a job. You are here to make a difference. Make it count.

It’s about them, not about me. Leaders spend a lot of time worrying about their own performance, and their achievements. All of which is useful during annual appraisals, but is of little relevance in the context of a legacy. Because legacies are not about what you did — but about the impact you had on other people. As Kouzes and Posner point out in their book A Leader’s Legacy, “It’s not about how big a campfire you built, but how well you kept others warm.” Think about it.

Work on it now, don’t leave it for later. Most leaders think of legacy-making only at the end of their careers. That’s too late. Legacy creation opportunities come up every day, right from the start of your career. Grab them. Or else you will look back and say ‘I should have. Or I could have’. Don’t wait for the day when you become CEO to start thinking about your legacy. Legacies are built over a lifetime. And not in a hasty post-script to your corporate career. You’ve created plans for the business. You’ve planned your career. Now start thinking about your legacy too.

People remember stories, not the numbers. Leaders deliver results, sure. But they also do story-worthy things through their lifetime. That brash young management trainee — what would he be saying was the biggest lesson he learnt from you? And that coffee boy in the branch office — what story would he remember you by? Heck, would he remember you at all? When it’s all done and dusted, people won’t be talking about your market share gains, and sales growth numbers. They will be telling stories of the kind of person you were, the things you did and the difference you made. The numbers will be forgotten, the stories will remain. What’s your story?

There’s an old Chinese proverb that says ‘the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is now’. Legacies are like those trees. You’ll wish you had started working on them 20 years ago.

Luckily, 2035 is still some distance away. Think of your legacy. Make a beginning. Make a difference. Touch a life. Teach. Care. Give. Your time starts now.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


Prakash Iyer

Iyer is an author, speaker and leadership coach , and former MD of Kimberly Clark Lever

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